This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Liturgical Use of Bells - A Theological Study.

The ringing of bells - it has been a part of Christian worship since the earliest times, and the variety of what they are used for is quite a diverse spectrum. Different traditions of the Church place a different emphasis on the ringing of bells, but nonetheless they are a part of our worship as Christians, and thus it is important to talk about their importance.  Some Evangelicals - many of whom are more into the so-called "seeker-friendly" rock-and-roll church, are so ambivalent and ignorant about this subject that often they chide our more liturgical churches for being obsessed with "smells and bells." Thing is, though, there is a biblical precedent to bells, more so than the practices detractors advocate, and that is what we are here to talk about today.

When bells are used in Christian worship, they alert us to a number of things:

1.  They express our praises to God

2.  They draw our attention to the holiest parts of our worship

3.  They serve a function of calling us, summoning, to worship and to service

It is also of note that bells play a major part in our hymnody as well, being that the handbell choir has existed since earliest times in the Church, as well as the carillon that many churches of all traditions have.  These facts also establish bells as a major spiritual warfare weapon too, as the devil HATES the sound of praise to the Lord, and the bell is the ultimate expression of that. This is why, in many Islamic-controlled lands, Christians are forbidden to have bell towers in their churches, because it threatens the demonic principalities that control Islam.  The dread of Satan regarding the praise of God is also the reason bells are a major part of the Paska festivities in Eastern Christian churches too, particularly among the Slavs, because on Easter Sunday the bells in the Russian Church are rung in proclaimation of the Risen Christ.  Personally, hearing the peal of the bells is something that stirs my spirit in a major way, because you can feel the praise of God rising to the throne of heaven with such a beauty and boldness that it touches the heart.  Bells, therefore, are not something to be chided and scorned by carnal "seeker churches" who seem to feel more comfortable with the devil's music, but are rather heavenly praise to the almighty God, and the Risen Savior, Jesus Christ.  As such, we need to revive their use in greater ways in the church.

Fr. Roman Lukianov, in his article "A Brief History of Russian Bells" (available at if you want to study more on the subject) points out some strong Biblical evidence for bells in worship, and briefly, here are some of those precedents he notes:

1.  Psalm 150:5 - this verse talks about praising God with cymbals, which Fr. Roman says resembled bells in their shape back in Biblical times.  A bell and a cymbal, both melodic percussion instruments, then would serve similar functions.  He describes them as large and pitcher-shaped, with a beautiful tone that successfully wedded the cymbal and the horn.

2.  Bell ringing served a similar function as did the blowing of the shofar in the Temple worship of Israel

3. Fr. Roman notes also that in the Christian East, wood blocks called semantrons were often used to summon people to worship, but after bells were introduced, they were more favored because they carried further and were more melodic in tone. 

As the article proceeds, Fr. Roman hits upon the most profound reason for the use of bells as he writes the following:

For people who accepted the teaching of Christ with their whole hearts, who made an effort to live their daily lives in accordance with God's commandments, a call to prayer was a welcome relief from the harsh realities of daily existence. Bells called people to another world, the heavenly world of beauty in the churches. The churches for them were heaven on earth, places where salvation was being taught, where sins were being forgiven and one was sanctified.

That is a beautiful explanation of the use of the bell in Christian liturgical worship, and in the case of the Christian Slavs, it meant a lot.  Slavs are noted for having a warmer, more expressive worship in their churches, particularly among the Russians and Ukrainians, than either the more cerebral Greeks or the intellectually-minded Latin Church, and thus this is expressed quite vividly in both their liturgies and the aesthetics of their churches.  The Russian word for orthodoxy, for instance, is Pravdoslavnie, which literally translates to "glorious truth," whereas the Greek translation of Orthodoxa merely means "correct teaching." There is a big difference in those interpretations for the same word, and personally I think the Russian/Slav term should more aptly express what our Christianity is about - we have been redeemed by a Savior who loves us, and though He was put to death, He is Risen!!  When Slavs first converted to Christianity, they did so with such a joy and sincerity that to be honest it should shame most of us today.  You can still feel that in their liturgies too, and I will tell you, when you see that, and hear those bells proclaim the Risen Savior on Easter at midnight in a Russian Liturgy, it will truly move you to tears of joy (the Russians have a word for that experience too - it is called umilenie).  Why have we chosen to neglect this in the West, and even among other Eastern Churches??  Fr. Eusebius Stephanou has often said that many people sitting in pews of many parishes - West as well as East, I must add! - are merely "baptized pagans."  Yes, they believe (less so nowadays than in the past) the faith of the Church, and yes, they know how to go through the motions of their religion, but they haven't experienced that Glorious Truth (Pravdoslavnie) coming to life within them.  We would do well to study the rich traditions of people like the early Christian Slavs, and to embrace that faith like they did, because it would revolutionize our Christianity if we did so.  And, the ringing of bells should remind us of that.  Being the lifeless, "cold-fish" mentality of most average Catholic and Orthodox Christians nowadays - they go to liturgy out of obligation rather than desire for the most part - it is somewhat understandable why some Evangelicals and Charismatics chide them about the "smells and bells," because frankly it is doing these people no good because they fail to understand the "glorious truth" behind why they worship.  However, the Evangelicals who do that offer a far inferior alternative - their worship, while spirited, is often entertainment-driven, emotion-based, and doesn't adequately express God's majesty in the way it should in many cases.  This simply means it is time for a restoration of these things in the Church.

In the Christian West, bells have an important function as well, especially in Tridentine Latin Masses and traditional Anglican Liturgy.   At key points during the Mass, a small set of handbells are rung, usually in threes, in order to emphasize something highly important and very holy.  In the Anglican 1928 BCP Liturgy, this happens at the beginning of the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts...") and also when the elements of the Eucharist are elevated and consecrated by the priest, the holiest part of the Mass.  A subdeacon or altar server, usually sitting to the right side of the altar, is the person ringing the bells, and the set of bells he uses looks like this:

These bells serve a similar function to the bells that one sees in the Syriac, Coptic, and other Oriental Churches that are often affixed to the repidia (liturgical fans) used in their liturgies as symbols of the Cherubim before the throne of God.  The bells on the repidia are waved over the Gospel book as the priest or deacon proclaims it, and often preceding the reading are the words "Wisdom, let us attend!" meaning that the Gospel is the core of the Liturgy, and the words of Jesus in it are of utmost importance. 

Repidion - Liturgical Fan - without the bell attachments.

Bells are also to be found on the censers of the Eastern Churches too, as discussed in the previous study, and their function there is of course to symbolize the praises of God's people being mingled with the sincere prayers - symbolized by the aromatic smoke of the incense - as both rise to God as a pleasing offering from the priest on behalf of the worshippers. 

A typical Eastern Church censer - note the bells on the chain

Fr. Roman also points out correctly in his article that there is a correlation between bells as used now in churches and the ancient use of the shofar in the Temple - in summation, both symbolize the same thing. 
Getting back to the Easter bells, I wanted to insert here what the zvons, or tones, of the bells used are, and this comes from the website of a bellcasting contractor and Orthodox Christian friend who provides much interesting and rich information on his site:


("Annunciation") Preliminary call to the major services. While reading psalm 118(119), strike the largest bell once at the beginning and once after every second 8-line section indicated in the psalm by a hebrew letter (12 times total). Alternatively, strike the bell once for each of 12 recitations of psalm 50(51). Blagovest takes a long time.

Zvon ("Peal")

Play the bells rhythmically. Depending on the bells you have and whether you’re using all of them at any given time, there are numerous ways to do this.


("Double Peal") Play all the bells twice by striking a full zvon, then pausing for a moment (perhaps continuing the pulse with the largest bell(s) only), and then striking a second full zvon.


("Triple Peal") Like dvuzvon, but play all the bells three times, pausing between movements (possibly keeping time with the largest bell). This peal is for the liturgy and at times of joy, and especially after the liturgy, it should last for some minutes if possible in your neighborhood.


("Chain-Peal") Strike the bells in order, beginning with the largest bell and proceeding to the smallest, each bell several times before going to the next. Repeat this chain as long as necessary. Used at any blessing of water. A single perezvon is struck only twice a year, on Great Friday before the Shroud is brought forth, and on Great Saturday, at the magnificat of matins. Always followed by trezvon. The large-to-small pattern symbolizes the self-emptying humility of the Son of God..


("Chain-toll") Slowly strike each bell once beginning from the smallest bell and proceeding to the largest. After the chain, strike all bells together; repeat several times. This is the funeral toll. Symbolizes the christian’s ascent from birth to maturity; striking all the bells at once here symbolizes death. Alternatively, symbolizes the ascent from this life (small) to the life to come (great).


(Vspoloshniy Zvon) ("Alarm") A frequent striking of the largest bell.

(information from

These bells are very large also, and unlike many liturgical bells they are cast to perfect pitch and tone in cast-iron foundries.  Some of these may weigh up to 20 tons actually!  I have searched for a good picture of Russian liturgical bells, and this is what I have found:

Much more could be said about bells in worship, but this is a primer course for those who may not be familiar with the tradition, theology, and symbolism behind them.  Perhaps in the future, as more information comes available, I will update the information here and provide a more comprehensive study.  Again though, next time someone mockingly derides liturgical churches of being mere "smells and bells," hopefully this will provide a resource to educate.  God bless.